Preventing poor children from becoming poor adults
24 October 2012
The age of austerity will be around for some years to come so all political parties will have to show that they are not expecting the poorest to bear the brunt of cuts, writes Nick Assinder
When David Cameron announced in 2006 that any future Conservative government would recognise that poverty was relative and would "measure and act on it" campaigners rejoiced, believing the argument could finally move on and that future policy, whichever side it came from, would be geared towards tackling the issue at its source.
The then Labour government was equally committed, pledging to halve child poverty (the leading indicator of overall poverty) which stood at 3.4 million, or a quarter of all the UK's children, by 2010 and end it entirely a decade later, a promise the coalition government matched. Poverty was, and currently still is, defined as 60% of the median household income.
But that was all in the good times when spending on welfare to lift people out of poverty was central to the government's programme. Now, with those targets missed, economic austerity the order of the day, poverty rising and another £10bn cuts to welfare promised, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has launched a review of the way relative poverty is to be measured in future, to take account of things other than just income.
A consultation exercise he announced in the summer has just been set up but Duncan Smith indicated the way he expected the review to go when he launched it, announcing it should consider things including worklessness. welfare dependency, addiction, educational failure, debt and family breakdown.
"These are the multiple and overlapping problems that underpin social disadvantage and if we are to make real inroads to tackling child poverty we need to address them," he said. One test of the success of this approach will come when his radical Universal Credit replacement for a myriad welfare payments comes into effect early next year.
The message was underlined by the prime minister during his party conference in October when he declared: "There is only one real route out of poverty and it is work.
"The reason we want to reform schools, to cut welfare dependency, to reduce government spending is not because we're the same old Tories who want to help the rich, it's because we're the Tories whose ideas help everyone - the poorest the most."
Former Labour Minister Frank Field, who was commissioned by David Cameron two years ago to produce a report on poverty and life chances agrees the income-based measure is flawed, and that simply giving poor families more money doesn't work.
"The report I did for the prime minister, preventing poor children from becoming poor adults, is where my interest lies, namely looking at root causes and dealing with those, rather than doing endless measurements," he says.
But the notion that welfare spending has failed, that the definition of poverty is no longer fit for purpose and that resources should be focussed on getting people into work has met with criticism, notably from the Child Poverty Action Group who forecasting child poverty will rise to 4.2 million by 2020.
Chief Executive Alison Garnham has dismissed the latest government approach as unrealistic by failing to recognise that a large proportion of those living in poverty have at least one family member in work.
"Very little child poverty is caused by having a parent who is a gambler, addict or workshy, and much more is caused by having a parent who is a cleaner, a retail worker, a care worker or any one of the millions of workers not paid a living wage," she said.
And there is continuing division between the major parties on how best to tackle the issue. Labour leader ED Miliband recently announced that lifting children out of poverty would be a priority for the next Labour government. But he suggested part of the problem was government cuts working families tax credits.
That view has been supported by the Child Poverty Action Group which found that, despite missing the 2010 target, Labours welfare policies did reduce numbers from 3.4 million to 2.8 million in 2008-09.
But there are few indications of what else a Labour government would do in future, other than continue using welfare as the key weapon against poverty.
But, with economic austerity set to continue for some years to come, all parties will be facing growing pressure to prove they are not allowing the poorest to bear the brunt of cuts.